John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 3: The Fear Machine (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman, Mark Buckingham, Alfredo Alcala & various (Vertigo/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3519-2 (TPB)

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Created by Alan Moore during the early days of his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, he premiered in the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US but at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in England, so as we’re singing the same song now – but with second-rate Britain’s Got Talent cover-artist wannabes as leaders – I thought I’d cover a few old gems that might be regaining relevance in the days ahead…

In 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal attitudes were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. Jamie Delano began the series with relatively safe horror plots, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature, chequered history and odd acquaintances but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a joyously anti-establishment political line and wildly metaphorical underpinnings.

Skinheads, racism, Darwinian politics, gender fluidity, plague, famine, gruesome supernature and more abound in the dark dystopian present of John Constantine – a world of cutting edge mysticism, Cyber-shamanism and political soul-stealing. In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist.

Some terrors are eternal and some seem inextricably tied to a specific time and place. The Fear Machine (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #14-22 spanning December 1988-September 1989) is an engrossing extended epic which begins in ‘Touching the Earth’ (by Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham) as the wizard goes on the run thanks to the tabloid press pillorying him as a sex-crazed Satanist serial killer.

Forced to flee his London comfort-zone, Constantine is adopted by neo-pagan Travellers and journeys through the heartland of Britain. Apparently, these dangerous non-conformists are responsible for all the ills plaguing society of the 1980s and 1990s, just like fat people, the poor and immigrants are today…

Going native amongst the drop-outs, druggies, bath-dodgers and social misfits, Constantine buddies up with an immensely powerful psychic girl named Mercury and her extremely engaging mum, Marj, but even amidst these freewheeling folks he can feel something nasty and unnatural building. The first inkling occurs in ‘Shepherd’s Warning’when Mercury discovers an ancient stone circle has been fenced off by a quasi-governmental company named Geotroniks. It seems someone is trying to shackle Mother Earth’s circulatory system of Ley lines.

Meanwhile elsewhere, people are compelled to kill and mutilate themselves while Geotroniks boffins watch and take notes…

Mercury is abducted when police raid the Travellers’ campsite in ‘Rough Justice’. Imprisoned in a secret complex where the mind’s limits and the Earth’s hidden forces are being radically tested, she witnesses horrors beyond imagining and cutting-edge science. If only the subjects and observing scientists can be persuaded to stop committing suicide…

Mike Hoffman illustrates fourth chapter, ‘Fellow Travellers’ wherein Constantine heads back to London for help in finding Mercury and uncovering Geotroniks’ secrets. He gains one horrific insight when the train he’s on is devastated by a psychic assault which forces the passengers to destroy themselves…

With Buckingham & Alfredo Alcala assuming the art duties, ‘Hate Mail & Love Letters’ begins two months later. Marj and the travellers are hiding in the Scottish Highlands with a fringe group called the Pagan Nation, led by the mysterious Zed – an old friend of the wily trickster. Constantine keeps digging, but across the country, suicide and self-harm are increasing. Society itself seems diseased, but at least the Satanist witch hunt has been forgotten as the bloody pack of Press vultures rage on to their next sanctimonious cause celebre

Touching base with his precious few police contacts and pet journalists, the metropolitan mage soon stumbles into a fresh aspect of mystery when a Masonic hitman begins removing anyone who might further his enquiries in ‘The Broken Man’. Constantine saves journalist Simon Hughes from assassination in a particularly exotic manner guaranteed to divert attention from his politically-damaging investigations, and discovers new clues. It all points the psychic horror and social unrest being orchestrated by reactionary factions of the government employing a sinister and all-pervasive “Old Boy network”…

And somewhere dark and hidden, Mercury’s captors are opening doors to places mortals were never meant to go…

As the Pagan Nation’s priestesses work subtle magics to find the missing girl and save humanity’s soul, a disgusting, conglomerate beast-thing is maturing, made from fear and pain, greed, suffering and deep black despair: provoking a response from and guest-appearance by Morpheus, the Sandman, which prompts Constantine, Hughes and possibly the last decent copper in London to go hunting…

After picking up another recruit in the form of KGB scientist Sergei in ‘Betrayal’, events spiral ever faster as the Freemasons – or at least their “Magi Caecus” elite – are revealed as organisers of the plot to combine Cold War paranormal research, economic imperialism, divisive Thatcherite self-gratification and the Order’s own quasi-mystical arcana to create a situation in which their guiding principles will dominate society and the physical world. It’s nothing more than a greedy, sleazy power-grab using blood and horror to fuel the engines of change…

All pretence of scientific research at Geotroniks is abandoned in ‘The God of All Gods’ as Masonic hitman Mr. Webstergoes off the deep end, ignoring his own Lodge Grandmaster’s orders to abort the project amidst an escalating national atmosphere of mania. He is determined to free the fearful thing they’ve created and unmake the modern world at all costs. Constantine’s allies are all taken and the wizard is left to fight on alone.

Knee deep in intrigue, conspiracy and spilled guts, humanity is doomed unless Constantine’s band of unhappy brothers and a bunch of Highland witch-women can pull the biggest, bloodiest rabbit out of the mother of all hats in spectacular conclusion ‘Balance’

The heady blend of authoritarian intransigence, counterculture optimism, espionage action, murder-mystery, conspiracy theories and ancient sex-magic mix perfectly to create an oppressive tract of inexorable terror and shattered hope before an astounding climax forestalls – if not saves – the day of doom, in this extremely impressive dark chronicle which still resonates with the bleak and cheerless zeitgeist of the time.

This is a superb example of true horror fiction, inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as root cause of all ills. That our best chance of survival is a truly reprehensible, exploitative monomaniac seems a perfect metaphor for the world we’re locked into…

Clever, subversive and painfully prophetic, even at its most outlandish, this tale jabs at the subconscious with its scratchy edginess and jangles the nerves from beginning to end. An unmissable feast for fear fans, humanists and political mavericks everywhere…
© 1989, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Tales of the Demon


By Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Michael Golden, Don Newton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401299439 (HB)

After three seasons the overwhelmingly successful Batman TV show ended in March, 1968. Clocking up 120 episodes plus a theatrical-release movie since its premiere on January 12, 1966 it had triggered a global furore of “Batmania” fomenting hysteria for all things costumed, zany and mystery-mannish.

Once the series foundered and crashed, global fascination with “camp” superheroes burst as quickly as it had boomed, and the Caped Crusader was left to a hard core of dedicated fans and followers who hoped they might now have “their” hero back.

For comic book editor Julius Schwartz – who had tried to keep the most ludicrous excesses of the show off his pages whilst still cashing in on his global popularity – the solution was simple: ditch the tired shtick, gimmicks and gaudy paraphernalia and bring Batman back to basics, solving baffling mysteries and facing life-threatening perils.

That also meant phasing out the boy sidekick. Although the college freshman Teen Wonder would pop back for the occasional guest-shot yarn, this monument to comics ingenuity and narrative brilliance features him only sporadically. Robin had finally spread his wings and flown the nest for a solo back-up slot in Detective Comics, alternating with TV-derived newcomer Batgirl.

This themed collection re-presents some of the key clashes between the Gotham Guardian and immortal mastermind eco-activist Ra’s al Ghul – a contemporary and more acceptable visual embodiment of the classic inscrutable foreign devil as typified in a less forgiving age as the Yellow Peril or Dr. Fu Manchu. This kind of alien archetype permeates fiction as an overwhelmingly powerful villain symbol, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at the time, seem to embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s post 9/11 world. These legendary tales and supplementary material come from Batman #232, 235, 240, 242-244; DC Special Series #15; Detective Comics #411, 485, 489-490; Limited Collector’s Edition C-51; and Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4.

The concept of a villain who has the best interests of the planet at heart is not a new one, but Ra’s Al Ghul, whose avowed intent is to reduce teeming humanity to viable levels and save the world from our poison, hit a chord in the 1970s – a period where ecological issues first came to the attention of the young. It was a rare kid who didn’t find a note of sense in what the Demon’s Head planned. I wonder how the latest crop of youthful would-be planet-savers feel about him?

Background and more is discussed in screenwriter Sam Hamm’s recycled 1991 Introduction to that year’s landmark graphic novel compilation of this saga, before the timeless contest of indomitable wills begins with a seminal story from Detective Comics #411. ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers’ was written by Denny O’Neil, illustrated by the great Bob Brown, and inked by Dick Giordano, featuring the sinister League of Assassins and introducing exotic mystery woman Talia.

Neal Adams & Dick Giordano joined O’Neil for Batman #232’s ‘Daughter of the Demon’: a signature high-point of the entire Batman canon. It details an exotic chase and mystery yarn drawing an increasingly Dark Knight from Gotham’s concrete canyons to the Himalayas in search of hostages Robin and Talia. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this much reprinted tale, I’m not going to spoil the joy that awaits you…

Batman #235 sees penciller Irv Novick join regulars O’Neil & Giordano for ‘Swamp Sinister’, a tale of bio-hazard and double cross affording some early insights into the true character of Talia and her ruthless sire. The same creative team sets the scene for the groundbreaking “series-within-a-series” soon to follow when ‘Vengeance for a Dead Man’ (Batman #240) has Batman uncover one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s less worthy and more grisly projects. As a result, open war begins between Batman and the Demon…

Batman #242-244 and an epilogue from #245 (still-infuriatingly absent from this supposedly definitive collection) formed an extended saga and was taken out of normal DC continuity. It promised what was to be the final confrontation between two opposing ideals. Novick pencilled first episode ‘Bruce Wayne – Rest in Peace!’ wherein Batman gathers a small team of allies – including still-active-today underworld insider Matches Malone – to destroy the Demon forever. Adams returned with second chapter ‘The Lazarus Pit’, which offered titanic action, rollercoaster drama and what seemed to we consumers of the day to be a brilliant conclusion to the epic. But with the last three pages the rug was pulled out from under us and the saga continued!

How sad for modern fans with so many sources of information today: the chances of creators genuinely surprising devoted readers are almost non-existent, but in the faraway 1970s we had no idea what to expect from #244 when ‘The Demon Lives Again!’ hit shops and newsstands.

In a classic confrontation, Batman ultimately triumphs and Ra’s Al Ghul disappeared for years. He was considered by DC as a special villain and not one to be diluted through overuse. How times change…

By 1978 the company was experimenting with formats and genres in a time of poor comic sales. Part of that drive was an irregular anthology entitled DC Special Series and from the all-Batman #15 comes an oddly enticing gem scripted by O’Neil and drawn by a talented young newcomer called Michael Golden, with inks from the ubiquitous Dick Giordano.

‘I Now Pronounce you Batman and Wife’ is a stylish, pacy thriller that anticipates the 1980s sea-change in comics storytelling, but its most interesting aspect is the plot maguffin which later inspired a trilogy of graphic novels in the 1990s and today’s Damien Wayne/Robin.

September 1979 brought another key multi-part epic, represented here by Detective Comics #485, 489 and 490. Although picky me still wishes that all parts were included, the truncated version here suffers no significant loss of narrative flow as Batman is dragged into a civil war for leadership of the Al Ghul organization between the Demon and the aged oriental super-assassin the Sensei – whom older fans will know as the villain behind the murder of aerialist Boston Brand and birth of Deadman.

O’Neil, Don Newton & Dan Adkins open proceedings in ‘The Vengeance Vow!’ as a long-standing member of the Batman Family is murdered, drawing Batman into battle with deadly mind-controlled martial artist Bronze Tiger. After thwarting the Sensei’s schemes for months, the saga cataclysmically concludes in ‘Where Strike the Assassins!’ and ‘Requiem for a Martyr!’

Whilst perhaps not as powerful as the O’Neil/Novick/Adams/Giordano run, this serial is a stirring thriller with a satisfactory denouement, elevated to dizzying heights by the magnificent artwork of Don & Adkins. Newton’s Batman could well have become the definitive 1980s look, but the artist’s tragically early death in 1984 cut short what should have been a superlative and stellar career.

In recent years, Ra’s Al Ghul has become Just Another Bat-Foe: familiarity indeed breeding mediocrity, if not contempt. But these unique tales from a unique era are comics at their very best in this definitive archival landmark.

Adding lustre to proceedings is a gallery of pertinent covers taken from early trade paperback collections. Brian Stelfreeze produced a brace of stunners with 1991’s Batman: Tales of the Demon TPB in editions for DC Comics and Warner Books; Adams created the potent image used on this very edition in a wraparound treat gracing Limited Collector’s Edition C-51 (August 1977) whilst Jerry Bingham & Dick Giordano and Adams & Rudy Nebres delivered a quartet of covers for Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4 (January-April 1988). Also included here are an Afterword by Denny O’Neil and John Wells’ ‘The Saga of the Demon’s Head’ detailing the later schemes of the eternal thorn in humanity’s skin…

With the game-changing classics in this volume, Batman finally returned to the commercial and critical top flight he had deserved and enjoyed in the 1940s: reviving and expanding upon his original conception as a remorseless, relentless avenger of injustice. The next few years would see the hero rise to unparalleled heights of quality so stay tuned: the very best is just around the corner… that dark, dark corner…
© 1971, 1972, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

World’s Finest: Guardians of Earth


By Denny O’Neil, Mike Friedrich, Steve Skeates, Len Wein, Elliot S! Maggin, Dick Dillin, Joe Giella & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0178-3 (HB)

For decades Superman and Batman were quintessential superhero partners: the “World’s Finest team”. The affable stalwarts were best buddies as well as mutually respectful colleagues, and their pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes could happily cross-pollinate and cross-sell their combined readerships. This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the early 1940s, whilst in comics the pair had only briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #36 (August-September 1947) – and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

Of course, they had shared covers on World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside; sticking firmly to their specified solo adventures within. In fact, they never shared an official comic book case. However, once that Rubicon was crossed in Superman #76 (May 1952), the partnership solidified thanks to spiralling costs and dwindling page-counts. As 52-page titles dwindled to the 32, WFC permanently sealed the new deal and the industry never looked back…

The Cape and Cowl Crusaders were partners and allies from #71 onwards (July 1954), working together until the title was cancelled in the build-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986. All that is, except for a brief period when the Man of Steel was paired with other stars of DC’s firmament.

This mighty compelling compendium re-presents those cataclysmic collaborations from the turbulent 1970’s (World’s Finest Comics #198-214, spanning November 1970 to October- November 1972), as radical shifts in America’s tastes and cultural landscape fostered a hunger for more mature, socially relevant stories. That drive even affected the Dark Knight and Action Ace – so much so, in fact, that their partnership was temporarily suspended: paused so Superman could guest-star with other DC icons.

After three years, another bold experiment reunited them as parents of The Super-Sons before the regular relationship was revitalised and renewed. With the World’s Finest Heroes fully restored, their bizarrely apt pre-eminence endured another lengthy run until the title’s demise.

Without preamble the action kicks off here by returning to a thorny topic which had bedevilled fans for years…

The comic book experience is littered with eternal, unanswerable questions. The most common and most passionately asked always begin “who would win if…” or “who’s strongest/smartest/fastest…”

Here, crafted by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella, ‘Race to Save the Universe!’ and the concluding ‘Race to Save Time’ (WFC #198-199; November and December 1970) upped the stakes on two previous competitions as the high-speed heroes are conscripted by the Guardians of the Universe to circumnavigate the entire cosmos at their greatest velocities to reverse the rampage of the mysterious Anachronids: faster-than-light creatures whose pell-mell course throughout the galaxies is actually unwinding time itself and unravelling the fabric of creation. Little does anybody suspect that Superman’s oldest enemies were behind the entire appalling scheme…

Anniversary issue #200 was crafted by regular Robin, the Teen Wonder scripter Mike Friedrich, with Dillin & Giella doing the drawing – as they did for this entire book. ‘Prisoners of the Immortal World!’ (February 1971) focusses on college-student brothers on opposite sides of the Vietnam War debate abducted along with youth icon Robin and “Mr. Establishment” Superman to a distant planet where undying vampiric aliens wage eternal war on each other.

Green Lantern pops in for #201, contesting ‘A Prize of Peril!’ (O’Neil, Dillin & Giella) which would grant either Emerald Gladiator or Man of Steel sole jurisdiction of Earth’s skies. Sadly, all is not as it seems…

Batman returned for a limited engagement in #202 as the O’Neil-penned ‘Vengeance of the Tomb-Thing!’ sees archaeologists unearth something horrific in Egypt, just before Superman seemingly goes mad and attacks his greatest friends and allies. A superb ecological scare-story, this tale changed the Man of Tomorrow’s life for decades to come…

Current Aquaman writer Steve Skeates waded in for #203 as ‘Who’s Minding the Earth?’ pits Metropolis Marvel and King of Atlantis against parthenogenetic mutant dolphins attempting to terraform the polluted world into something more welcoming to their kind…

More ecological terror underpins O’Neil’s bleak warning in #204 as ‘Journey to the End of Hope!’ finds powerless former Wonder Woman Diana Prince and Superman summoned to a barren lifeless Earth. Here a dying computer warns that a butterfly effect will inevitably lead to this future unless they prevent a certain person dying in a college campus riot. Only time will tell if they succeed as the clash does indeed cost a life despite all their efforts…

Racism, sexism and the oppression of reactionary conservative values then get a well-deserved pasting in #205’s ‘The Computer that Captured a Town!’

Here Skeates deviously layers a Teen Titans tale with a wealth of eye-opening commentary after the team are locked into a mid-Victorian parochial paradise enforced by a dead man and alien tech, until the Man of Tomorrow wades in to set things straight…

WFC #206 (October-November 1971) was an all-reprint giant, represented here by its rousing Dick Giordano cover, after which #207 again reunites the true World’s Finest team as Batman returns to solve a murder mystery in the making and save the Man of Tomorrow in ‘A Matter of Light and Death!’, after which Earth-2 sorcerer hero Doctor Fate aids the Action Ace in thwarting the extraterrestrial ‘Peril of the Planet-Smashers!’ – both courtesy of Len Wein, Dillin & Giella.

Supernatural menaces were increasingly popular as a global horror boom reshaped readers’ tastes, informing (#209) Friedrich’s ‘Meet the Tempter – and Die!’ wherein Hawkman and Superman are seduced into evil by an eternal demon, whilst Elliot S! Maggin’s ‘World of Faceless Slaves!’ in #210 catapults the Caped Kryptonian and Green Arrow into a primordial magic kingdom to liberate the vassals of diabolical sorcerer supreme Effron

The Darknight Detective returns again in #211, as O’Neil, Dillin & Giella devise a global manhunt for a ‘Fugitive from the Stars!’ Their target is a political refugee whose arrest is demanded by warriors who are a physical match for Superman, but happily, not Batman’s intellectual equals…

‘…And So My World Begins!’ in #212 is O’Neil’s thematic sequel to Justice League of America #71, which saw Mars devasted by race war and its survivors flee to the stars in search of a new homeworld. Here, Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz seeks Superman’s aid to rescue the last survivors from life-leeching mechanoids, unaware that a traitor has sold them all out to predatory aliens…

Maggin drills deep into super science for #213 as ‘Peril in a Very Small Place!’ finds the greater universe endangered by a microscopic and insatiable Genesis molecule, demanding a fantastic voyage into the Microverse inside a phone line for the Atom and Superman before this compilation concludes with wild west weirdness from by Skeates, O’Neil, Dillin & Giella. Here Golden Age troubleshooter The Vigilante delivers the silver bullet necessary to save Superman when ‘A Beast Stalks the Badlands!’

With covers by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Nick Cardy and Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson, this book is a gloriously uncomplicated treasure trove of adventures which still have the power and punch to enthral even today’s jaded seen it-all audiences.

The contents of this titanic team-up tome are a veritable feast of witty, pretty thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have. Utterly entrancing adventure for fans of all ages!
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batgirl volume 1: Silent Knight


By Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett, Chuck Dixon, Damion Scott, Mike Deodato Jr., Pablo Raimondi & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6627-1 (TPB)

Way back when, after Gotham City was devastated in a massive earthquake (see Batman: Cataclysm and Batman: No Man’s Land in 2000) it was written off and abandoned by the US government in a spookily prescient foretaste of what would happen to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Amidst the rubble, a number of heroes struggled to protect the innocent. One of these was a brand-new incarnation of Batgirl.

As the crisis ended and a semblance of normality returned to the battered metropolis, the new heroine got her own series and a mentor in the form of Babs Gordon, the wheelchair-bound crime-fighter called Oracle, who was also the first Batgirl.

The new operative is an enigmatic problem. Raised in utter isolation as an experiment by martial arts super-assassin David Cain, she cannot communicate. Part of the process creating Cassandra Cain was depriving and overriding her language centres in an effort to make combat her only communication tool. An apparent runaway, she was briefly adopted by the Batman as another weapon in his never-ending battle, before the more humane Oracle becomes her guardian and teacher.

In this first paperback/digital volume – spanning April 2000-March 2001 by collecting #1-12 of the monthly series and first Annual – the new Batgirl is trying to find her way, bereft even of the ability to learn, whilst revelling in the role of defender of the helpless, but her development as a human being threatens to diminish her capacity as a weapon, and the mystery of her past would indicate that she is possibly a two-edged sword in Batman’s arsenal…

In a bold experiment, initiating writers Scott Peterson and Kelly Puckett eschewed the standard format of individually titled stories to craft a continuous string of high action, deeply moving episodes which saw the neophyte street warrior battle the dregs of Gotham City while attempting to adapt to a life where not every person was her enemy.

Fast, furious, frenetic, visually expressive incidents (illustrated by Damion Scott with inkers Robert Campanella & Coy Turnbull) are interspersed with flashbacks to her lethal and cruel formative years with Cain pitting her against assassins and worse, while keeping a stunning secret of her natal origins all for himself…

In contemporary moments, Cassandra prowls the streets determined to honour her saviour Batman and sole friend Babs, battling thieves, thugs, rapists and all the worst human predators the city can throw at her.

All too soon, her first failure – to preserve an innocent life – leaves her emotionally wounded and susceptible to metahuman attack, even as Batman discovers his new operative may have blood on her own hands. Complicating the crisis, a telepath Cassandra rescues boosts her ability to speak, but inadvertently destroys her gift to read body language leaving her helpless against ordinarily easy opposition.

As Batman hunts and confronts Cain to clear Batgirl’s reputation, the embattled, dauntless wild child continues to risk her life in Gotham: going rogue and defying the Dark Knight to patrol the streets until she is targeted by Lady Shiva Woosan.

The world’s deadliest assassin has personal reasons for testing herself against Cassandra, and provides a cure for her lost battle assessment sense, but only to further her own insane agenda…

As Batman further unravels the convoluted mystery of Cassandra’s origins, Batgirl returns to duty, but again confronts failure at metahuman hands. Barely recovered, she finally faces her father and helps save Commissioner Gordon (in ‘Mute Witness’ from Batgirl #12 by Chuck Dixon, Dale Eaglesham & Andrew Hennessy). Her never-ending battle pauses for now after Batgirl Annual #1 takes her to Madras, India for ‘Introducing: Aruna’ by Peterson, Mike Deodato Jr. & John Stanisci.

Joining her mentor Batman and shapeshifting local hero Aruna, Cassandra explosively confronts millennia-old prejudice and ingrained racism whilst hunting for an abducted Bollywood child star exposed as a member of the “untouchables” caste. The shocking tragedy is supplemented by an origin for the shapeshifter, courtesy of Peterson, Pablo Raimondi & Walden Wong

Spellbinding, overwhelmingly fast-paced and terse to the point of bombastic brevity, this is a breakneck, supercharged thrill-ride of non-stop action that still manages to be heavily plot-based with genuine empathy and emotional impact. Truly superb comic storytelling which should be on every fan’s wish-list or bookshelf.
© 2000, 2001, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Aquaman: Deadly Waters – The Deluxe Edition


By Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1779502940 (HB)

Aquaman is one of a handful of costumed champions to survive the superhero collapse at the end of the Golden Age. For most of that time he was a rather nondescript and genial guy who – when not rescuing fish and people from sub-sea disasters – solved maritime crimes and mysteries.

The Sea King was created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris, debuting in More Fun Comics #73 (November 1941) in the wake of and in response to Timely Comics’ antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner. Strictly a second stringer for most of his career, Aquaman nevertheless continued on beyond many stronger features; illustrated by Norris, Louis Cazaneuve, Charles Paris, and latterly Ramona Fradon who drew almost every adventure from 1951 to 1961.

When Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s taste for costumed crimefighters with the advent of a new Flash in 1956, National/DC updated its small band of superhero survivors, especially Green Arrow and Aquaman.

As the sixties opened, Aquaman was appearing as a back-up feature in Detective and World’s Finest Comics. Following a team up with Hawkman in Brave and the Bold # 51 and a try-out run in Showcase #30-33, Aquaman made his big leap. After two decades of continuous nautical service, the marine marvel finally got his own comic book (cover-dated January/February 1962).

Now with his own title and soon to be featured in groundbreaking must-see cartoon show the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, our Finned Fury seemed destined for super-stardom, but despite increasingly bold and innovative tales presented with stunning art, his title was cancelled just after the decade closed. Towards the end, outrageously outlandish crime and sci fi yarns gave way to grittily hard-edged epics steered by revolutionary editor Dick Giordano and hot new talents Steve Skeates & Jim Aparo that might arguably be the first sallies of comic books’ landmark socially conscious “relevancy” period…

This compelling compilation – collecting Aquaman volume 1 #49-56 (February 1970 to April 1971) – is available in hardback and digital formats, offering potent dramas that changed perceptions of the amiable aquatic avenger forever as well as concluding his first foray as solo headliner…

Way back in Aquaman #18, (December 1964 and not included here) the marine marvel met extradimensional princess Mera, who became ‘The Wife of Aquaman’ in one of the first superhero weddings of the Silver Age. Talk about instant responsibilities…

A few years later new scripter Steve Skeates and equally fresh-faced illustrator Jim Aparo began an epic extended tale wherein the Sea Lord abandoned all regal responsibilities to hunt for his beloved after she was abducted from his very arms.

After rescuing Mera (in an extended epic collected in a previous volume) Aquaman moved back to Atlantis just in time to become embroiled in one of the earliest incidences of righteous eco-advocacy in American comics. Issue #49 stylishly blends a trip to Alaska, industrial waste dumping, greedy factory owners and an old ally acting as judge, jury and executioner while blowing up chemical plants in terse, potent thriller ‘As the Seas Die’.

With Aquaman and young partner Aqualad reeling from indecision over genuinely momentous issues, the tone abruptly switches for #50 as ‘Can This Be Death?’ sees Aparo stretch his creative muscles and enter the realms of psychodelia when the sea king is ambushed by aliens and banished to an incomprehensible otherworld.

The plot is ostensibly triggered by vengeful archenemy Ocean Master, but Skeates provides plenty of twists and surprises for Neal Adams to cover in his back-up slot ‘Deadman Rides Again!’

A complex braided crossover unfolds over the next three issues with Aquaman surviving bizarre threats and incomprehensible rituals in his exile realm, while the ghost of Boston Brand acts invisibly and intangibly to save the Sea King and prevent an alien invasion plot.

‘The Big Pull’ in #51 sees Aquaman assisted by a mute, nameless companion as he searches for a way home, whilst ‘The World Cannot Wait for a Deadman’ finds the spirit flitting between dimensions with shapeshifting enigma Tatsinda, before the parallel plots converge and complete in #52’s ‘The Traders Trap’ – with Aquaman accidentally abandoning his faithful companion to slavers and returning to face fresh hellion Black Manta before ‘Never Underestimate a Deadman’ sees the extraterrestrial invaders sent packing by the ghost and his new pal…

An element of wry satire underpins ‘Is California Sinking? in #53, as agents of O.G.R.E. dupe a wealthy conservative to buy a nuke and bomb Atlantis in the deranged conviction that his actions will prevent the Golden State from being submerged by tectonic forces. This all happens – and fails – without Aquaman’s interference since he’s still dealing with Black Manta…

It’s back to the surface and a return outing for the gangster who orchestrated Mera’s kidnap in #54 as ‘Crime Wave!’ in a chilling psychodrama which sees ordinary citizens engulfed in mind-controlled malevolence after being “killed” by “Thanatos”. Strangely, a brush with humanity’s death-urge doesn’t do much to stop Aquaman…

Seeking to clear up a loose end, Aquaman seeks to liberate his former otherworldly companion in #55’s ‘Return of the Alien!’ but gets a big shock when he confronts the slavers after which short sharp salutary vignette ‘Computer Trap!’ offers a never-untimely parable warning of the perils of mechanisation, dangers of conformity and benefits of youthful rebellion.

Despite producing some of the most avant-garde, intriguing, exciting and simply beautiful adventures of Aquaman’s entire career, Skeates & Aparo signed off with the next issue, more victims of the industry shift from Super Hero to supernatural themes. Aquaman #56 saw the series cancelled but the creators went out with a typically multi-layered bang as ‘The Creature that Devoured Detroit!’ saw the Sea King battling a mammoth unstoppable fungal bloom inundating Motor City, thanks to perpetual sunlight caused by a satellite designed by a vigilante to cut crime by abolishing night and shadows…

The madcap, trenchant and action-packed yarn is counterbalanced by a short Aquagirl yarn warning of ‘The Cave of Death!’

Augmented by a brace of Skeates-scribed ‘The Story Behind the Story’ text pages from Aquaman #52 and #54; creator biographies and a truly stunning gallery of eye-catching experimental covers by Nick Cardy, this collection is a treasure of lost wonders, worthy of far more attention than they’ve received. Time to balance those scales, adventure fans…
© 1970, 1971, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hawkworld


By Timothy Truman, Alcatena, Sam Parsons & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4329-6 (TPB)

In the mid-1980s, DC first culled and remade their vast continuity. Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths inspired creators re-imagined many the company’s hottest properties and a lot of beloved history was rewritten, only to be un-written in the decades since – which only shows how fiercely us fanboys hold onto our nostalgic treasures.

One of the few incidences of a reboot that deserved to stay untouched was when the Silver Age Hawkman was recreated in the wake of the 1989 braided mega-epic known as Invasion!

Previously, Katar Hol and his wife Shayera had been wholesome law officers from utopian planet Thanagar. Stationed on Earth to observe police methods, they were subsequently banished here when their homeworld fell to an alien “equalizer plague” and the dictator Hyanthis. This was then all abandoned for a back-story where Thanagar was always a sprawling, fascistic intergalactic empire in decline, utterly corrupt, and bereft of all creativity and morality.

Here lords live in floating cities, indulging in every excess whilst servants and slaves from a thousand vassal worlds cater to their every whim when not festering in gutter-ghettos far below. In this version, Hol is just another useless young aristocrat, but with an unnameable dissatisfaction eating away inside him.

Joining the security forces – or Wingmen – he experiences the horrors of the world below and rebels. Corruption is the way of life and he uses that to advance the conditions of the slaves, earning the enmity of his drug-running commander, Byth Rok. When his secret charity is exposed, Hol is framed and imprisoned on a desolate island where he meets alien shaman/philosophers and undergoes a spiritual transformation.

Learning compassion, he sets out to right the wrongs of a world, aided only by the dregs of the underclasses and fellow Wingman Shayera Thal: a mysterious, warped version of his girl-friend who was murdered years previously…

This lost classic – originally released in 1989 as a 3-part Prestige miniseries and now available in digital and paperback formats – lovingly blends the most visual, visceral elements of Gardner Fox, Joe Kubert and Murphy Anderson’s iconic Hawkman, with shades of The Count of Monte Cristo, Apocalypse Now and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination: solidly set against the backdrop of the harsh and cynical Reagan/Thatcher years to tell a dark moody tale which garnered great success and quickly spawned a compelling monthly series.

Now that modern DC is acknowledging debt to its creative and historical Infinite Frontiers, it’s high time this masterful thriller was again in print and regular production.
© 1989, 1991, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Blackhawk volume 1


By uncredited, Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1983-3 (TPB)

The early days of the American comic book industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the middle of the 1960s.

Thus, even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Jack Cole’s Death Patrol, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell).

None of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating the original Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…

This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and stayed together to crush Communism, international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters – and more Communism – becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on while Cuidera stayed until issue #11 – although he triumphantly returned in later years.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There were the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base, and of course, their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and (I am so sorry here!) Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle (to see the music and lyrics, you might check out the Blackhawk Archives edition); just remember this number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Quality Comics adapted well to peacetime demands: Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than most Golden Age superhero titles, whilst the rest of the line adapted into tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles. The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However, the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times. In 1956 Arnold sold most of his comics properties and titles to National Publishing Periodicals (AKA DC) and set up as a general magazine publisher.

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk running uninterrupted well into the 1970s (GI Combat survived until in 1987), whilst the unceasing draw and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, the assorted Freedom Fighters costumed pantheon, Kid Eternity

Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.

Despite the company largely turning its back on the “magnificent Seven” in recent years, these are terrific timeless tales as this commodious monochrome collection still proves. It covers the first National-emblazoned issue (#108, January 1957) through #127 (August 1958) which saw the Air Aces hit the ground running in a monthly title (at a time when Superman and Batman were only published eight times a year): almost instantly establishing themselves as a valuable draw in DC’s firmament.

Regrettably many of the records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (potential candidates include Ed “France” Herron, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Bill Woolfolk, Jack Schiff and/or Dave Wood) but the art remained in the capable hands of veteran illustrators Dick Dillin & Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…

Moreover, although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet of crime, B-movie Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales, so with three complete adventures per issue, this is a joyous celebration and compelling reminder of simpler yet more intriguing times.

The action begins with ‘The Threat from the Abyss’, an old-school “Commie-Stomper” yarn wherein the Magnificent Seven put paid to a sinister subsea Soviet rocket base, after which ‘Killer Shark’s Secret Weapon’ sustained the watery theme as the Blackhawks’ greatest foe returns with another outrageous mechanical masterpiece to aid his piratical schemes. Issue #108 concludes with ‘The Mutiny of the Red Sailors’, wherein a mass-defection of Russian mariners in Hong Kong proves to be a cunning scheme to destroy the then still-British colony.

‘The Avalanche King’ details the struggle against Red infiltrators in South America, ‘Blackhawk the Sorcerer!’ sees the team discover a lost outpost of Norman knights who missed the invasion of England in 1066 and ‘The Raid on Blackhawk Island’ pits the squad against their own trophies as an intruder invades their secret base, turning a host of captured super-weapons against them.

Blackhawk #110 opened with ‘The Mystery of Tigress Island’ as the doughty lads battle an all-girl team of rival international aviators; ‘The Prophet of Disaster’ proves to be no seer but simply a middle Eastern conman and ‘Duel of Giants’ sets the squad against a deranged scientist who can enlarge his body to blockbuster proportions.

‘The Menace of the Machines’ finds our heroes battling the incredible gimmicks of a Hollywood special effects wizard turned to crime, ‘The Perils of Blackie, the Wonder Bird’ features the team’s incredible feathered mascot – who cunningly turns the tables on a spy-ring which captures him – whilst ‘Trigger Craig’s Magic Carpet’ proves once again that Crime Does Not Pay, but also even ancient sorcery is no match for bold hearts and heavy machine-guns…

‘The Doomed Dogfight’ opened #112 as a Nazi ace schemes to rerun his WWII aerial duel against Blackhawk; criminal counterpart squadron ‘The Crimson Vultures’ prove no match for the Dark Knights and ‘The Eighth Blackhawk’ is shown as nothing more than a dirty traitor… or is he?

‘The Volunteers of Doom’ sees the team uncover sabotage whilst testing dangerous super-weapons for the US Government and ‘The Saboteur of Blackhawk Island’ only appears to be one of the valiant crew before ‘The Cellblock in the Sky’ has the heroes imprisoned by a disenchanted genius in floating cages – but not for long…

‘The Gladiators of Blackhawk Island’ depicts a training exercise co-opted by criminals with deadly consequences, whilst costumed criminal the Mole almost enslaves ‘20,000 Leagues Beneath the Earth’ and Blackie mutates into a ravening, uncontrollable menace in ‘The Winged Goliath’.

In ‘The Tyrant’s Return’, Nazi war criminals rally sympathisers around a new Hitler, ‘Blackie Goes Wild’ sees the gifted raptor revert to savagery but still thwart a South American revolution whilst ‘The Creature of Blackhawk Island’ reveals an extra-dimensional monster foolishly smashing through to our reality… onto the most heavily fortified military base on Earth…

As The Prisoners of the Black Palace’, the old comrades crush a criminal scheme to quartermaster the entire international underworld, before Blackhawk becomes ‘The Human Torpedo’ to eradicate a sea-going gangster but ends up in contention with a race of mermen, whilst old Hendrickson is ‘The Outcast Blackhawk’ after failing his annual requalification exams…

Blackhawk #117 began with the team tackling an apparent lost tribe of Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’ before becoming targets of a ruthless mastermind in ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ and battling a chilling criminal maniac in ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ (no relation to the later Bat foe).

‘The Bandit with 1,000 Nets’ was yet another audacious thief with a novel gimmick, whereas the Pacific Ocean is the real enemy when an accident maroons ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ as they hunt the nefarious Sting Ray, after which ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ sees the team helpless targets of international assassin and spymaster the Sniper.

A time-travel accident propels the aviators back to the old West in ‘Blackhawk vs Chief Black Hawk’, and on their return Frenchman Andre inherits a fortune to become ‘The Playboy Blackhawk’, before being kicked off the team. However, he’s happily reinstated for all-out dinosaur action in ‘The Valley of the Monsters’

‘The Challenge of the Wizard’ leads in #120, with the crew tackling an ingenious stage magician whilst a well-meaning kid makes plenty of trouble for them when he elects himself ‘The Junior Blackhawk!’. Then the sinister Professor tricks the heroes into re-enacting ‘The Perils of Ulysses’ with deadly robotic monsters.

‘Secret Weapon of the Archer’ pits the lads against a fantastic attention-seeking costumed menace, before ‘The Jinxed Blackhawk’ sees the team struggling against bad luck, superstition and a cunning criminal and ‘Siege in the Sahara’ findsthem re-enacting Beau Geste whilst rescuing hijacked atomic weapons from bandit chieftain the Tiger

‘The Movie that Backfired’ starts out as a biopic but develops into a deadly mystery when criminals make murderous alterations to the script, ‘The Sky Kites’ finds the heroes battling aerial pirate squadron The Ravens after which ‘The Day the Blackhawks Died’ sees the deadly Cobra laying a lethal trap, blithely unaware that he is the prey, not the predator…

Killer Shark resurfaces to unsuccessfully assault ‘The Underseas Gold Fort’, more leftover Nazis strive to solve a ‘Mystery on Top of the World’ involving the location of the Reich’s stolen gold and Blackhawk is ‘The Human Rocket’when thwarting an alien invasion.

In issue #124, figures from history rob at will and even the Blackhawks are implicated before the ‘Thieves with a Thousand Faces’ proved to be far from supernatural. Thereafter, ‘The Beauty and the Blackhawks’ sees shy Chuck apparently bamboozled by a sultry siren whilst ‘The Mechanical Spies from Space’ attempt to establish an Earthly beachhead but are soundly defeated by the Magnificent Seven’s unique blend of human heroism and heavy ordnance.

‘The Secrets of the Blackhawk Time Capsule’ proves an irresistible temptation for scientific super-criminal the Schemerwhilst ‘The Sunken Island!’ hides a lost Mongol civilisation in the throes of civil war and ‘The Super Blackhawk’ has an atomic accident transform the veteran leader into an all-powerful metahuman… unfortunately doing the same for the Mole and his gang too…

‘The Secret of the Glass Fort’ revisits the idea when the entire team briefly gain superpowers to battle alien invaders. The Prisoner of Zenda provides plot for ‘Hendrickson, King for a Day’, with the venerable Dutchman doubling for a missing monarch before ‘The Man Who Collected Blackhawks’ quickly learns to regret using a shrinking ray on the toughest crime-fighters in the World…

This stupendous selection climaxes with issue #127: starting with ‘Blackie – the Winged Sky Fighter’ wherein the formidable bird rescues his human comrades from an impossible death-trap, after which strongman Olaf takes centre-stage as ‘The Show-Off Blackhawk’ when a showbiz career diverts his attention from the most important things in life. The manly monochrome marvels conclude as a criminal infiltrates the squad disguised as American member Chuck: seemingly succeeds in killing the legendary leader in ‘The Ghost of Blackhawk’.

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last great outpouring of broadly human-scaled action-heroes in a marketplace increasingly filling up with gaudily clad wondermen and superwomen. The iconic blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado where a few good men with wits, firearms and a trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.

For this precious moment, though, these rousing tales of the miracles that (extra)ordinary guys can accomplish are some of the early Silver Age’s finest moments. Terrific traditional all-ages entertainment and some of the best comics stories of their time, these tales are forgotten gems of their genre and I sincerely hope DC finds the time and money to continue the magic in further collections and digital rereleases.

And so will you…
© 1957, 1958, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade


By Landry Q. Walker, Eric Jones & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0670-2 (

As a rule, superhero comics don’t generally do whimsically thrilling anymore. They especially don’t do short or self-contained. The modern narrative drive concentrates on extended spectacle, major devastation and relentless terror and trauma. It also helps if you’ve come back from the dead once or twice and wear combat thongs and thigh boots…

Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – other than the inappropriateness of striving to fix wedgies during life-or-death struggles – sometimes the palate just craves a different flavour.

Once such continued cosmic cataclysm was the exception, not the rule, and this enchanting re-issue from 2009 – available on paperback and digital formats – harks back to simpler days of complex plots, solid characterisation and suspenseful fun by way of an alternative take on Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, late of Argo City and Earth’s newest alien invader…

After a few intriguing test-runs, Supergirl began as a future star of the expanding Superman pocket universe in Action Comics #252 (May 1959). Superman’s cousin Kara had been born on a city-sized fragment of Krypton, hurled intact into space when the planet exploded. Eventually, Argo turned to Kryptonite like the rest of the detonated world’s debris, and Kara’s dying parents, observing Earth through their scopes, sent their daughter to safety even as they perished.

Landing on Earth, she met the Action Ace, who subsequently created the cover-identity of Linda Lee and hid her in an orphanage in bucolic Midvale whilst she learned of her new world and mastered her powers in secrecy and safety.

In 2009 much of that treasured back-history was joyously reinstated for a superb miniseries for younger readers with Saturday morning animation sensibilities. As reimagined by Landry Walker (Clash of Kings, Red Lanterns, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Eric Jones (Scary Larry, Little Gloomy, Batman: The Brave and the Bold), here Kara Zor-El is recast as a plucky 12-year-old whose world is suddenly turned upside down: a decidedly ordinary kid forced to adapt to and cope with impossible changes at the craziest time of her life…

It all begins as Superman and Lex Luthor indulge in another life-and-death duel. The battle ends suddenly as the evil genius’ war machine is wrecked by a gleaming rocket, from which emerges a dazed girl in a knock-off Man of Steel outfit. Panicked by the press pack that converges on her, the waif jumps back and suddenly catapults into the air.

Soon, however, Superman catches and calms the careering child and explanations ensue. She’s his cousin Kara from Argo City, which escaped the destruction of Krypton by a fantastic fluke: being hurled by the blast unharmed and entire into another dimension…

The Argoans thrive in their pocket reality and watch baby Kal-El become a mighty hero. In fact, it’s a message-probe aimed at him that Kara sneaked onto before being accidentally sent to Earth and a horrific shock to learn Superman has no idea how to get her back to them…

Marooned on a weird, primitive planet with powers she doesn’t understand and cannot control is bad enough, but discovering her cousin has no time or space to look after her is the worst. Soon, wearing a pair of awful glasses, orphan “Linda Lee” begins a new life at Stanhope Boarding School

The lessons are dull or baffling; nobody likes her, Principal Pycklemyer is a snide, snarky ass and worst of all, Kara’s powers keep turning off and on without any rhyme or reason. The first week is sheer hell, but ends on an up note as, after another fruitless attempt to get home, Linda heads back to the girls’ dormitory and finds a present waiting: a super-phone which can reach her mum and dad…

The Pre-Teen Powerhouse is still screwing up in class and her troubles multiply in detention when an odd green mineral interacts with a light projector in the science lab and creates an evil doppelgang.

Smug, arrogant Superiorgirl calls herself Belinda Zee and is instantly more popular with everybody. She also determined to make Linda’s life an unending succession of petty aggravations and annoyances…

However, Belinda’s greatest scheme to humiliate Linda is foiled by a new transfer student. High-maintenance misfit Lena Thorul is a scary genius who takes an instant liking to fellow outcast Linda and saves the day with a mind-control helmet she whipped up. Soon the weird pair are dorm-mates, even though Lena is a bit clingy and rather aggressive. She might even be preventing other students befriending Linda…

Life is never quiet and when Supergirl intercepts a glowing red meteor in space the fallout scatters scarlet debris all over Stanhope. The effect is amazing, as almost everybody develops superpowers…

Naturally Linda can’t reveal her own hidden abilities, so she and a few pitiful others are quickly relegated to a remedial class for the “super-heroically challenged”. When her powers suddenly fade, Supergirl is kept busy saving students from their own youthful follies and is astonished to later discover the power drain was caused by Lena…

And that’s when things get truly complicated, as her solution to the on-going problem gives Supergirl the ability to time-travel and the notion that she can warn her earlier self to respond differently to the crisis…

Another day, and another disaster dawns as Linda’s experiments with Green Kryptonite – in hopes of finding a cure – instead grant an alley cat superpowers. As Streaky stalks the halls of Stanhope, Lena reveals her true nature and Superiorgirl is forced to choose sides…

The adventure concludes on ‘Graduation Day’. Chaos reigns and the real reason for all the incredible events Linda has endured are finally revealed. Luthor escapes jail, Streaky returns, Belinda becomes queen of Bizarro Zombies, Fifth Dimensional Sprites attack and Supergirl meets Supragirl before ending with a new trusty companion – Comet the Superhorse. Sadly, he’s not enough to aid Linda as she strives to prevent the destruction all there is…

With Reality unravelling, Supergirl needs a little help, and it comes from the last person she expects…

Joyous, thrilling, warm-hearted and supremely entertaining, this festival of Fights ‘n’ Tights fun is a delightful romp for youngsters and a fabulous tribute to DC’s Silver Age, and fans can also enjoy bonus features including sketch sections on ‘Redesigning Supergirl’, lovely pencil roughs and a full cover gallery.

Also included is a tantalising preview taste of Diana: Princess of the Amazons by Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by Victoria Ying: a similarly intentioned reinvention for the smaller set focusing on the school days of the peerless Princess of Power…

Some characters are clearly capable of surviving seemingly infinite reinvention and the Girl of Steel is certainly one of those. Here in this charming, engaging, inspiring yarn you can enjoy a pure and primal romp: simultaneously action-packed and funny as it perfectly demonstrates how determination, smarts and courage trump superpowers and cosmic omnipotence every time.

© 2009, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

The Black Canary: Bird of Prey


By Bob Kanigher, Gardner Fox, Denny O’Neil, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Alex Toth & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0908-6 (TPB)

Black Canary was one of the first of relatively few female heroes to hold a star spot in the DC universe, following Wonder Woman, Liberty Belle and Red Tornado (who actually masqueraded as a man to comedically crush crime – with a couple of kids in tow, too!). The Canary predated Merry, the Gimmick Girl – remember her? No, you don’t – and disappeared with most the majority of costumed crusaders at the end of the Golden Age: a situation that was not remedied util her revival with the Justice Society of America in 1963.

She was created by Bob Kanigher & Carmine Infantino in 1947, echoing the worldly, dangerous women cropping up in a burgeoning wave of crime novels and on the silver screen in Film Noir tales better suited to the wiser, more cynical Americans who had just endured a World War and were even then gearing up for a paranoiac Cold one…

Clad in a revealing bolero jacket, shorts, fishnet stockings and high-heeled pirate boots, the devastating shady lady who looked like Veronica Lake even began life as a thief…

This superb collection capitalises on the character’s recent screen incarnations, gathering her admittedly short run of tales from Flash Comics (#86-104, August 1947-February 1949), Comics Cavalcade #25 (February/March 1948), plus two adventures that went unused when the comicbook folded: one of the earliest casualties in the wave of changing tastes which decimated the superhero genre until the late 1950s. Those last only resurfaced at the end of the Second Great Superhero Winnowing and were subsequently published in DC Special #3 and Adventure Comics #399 (June 1969 & November 1970 respectively).

Also intriguingly included are two stellar appearances from Brave and the Bold #61-62 (September & November 1965), teamed up with JSA team-mate Starman as part of a concerted yet ultimately vain editorial effort by Julius Schwartz to revive the Golden Age squad of champions then comfortably situated on parallel world Earth-2.

Best of all is the re-presentation of a 2-part thriller from Adventure Comics #418-419 (April-May 1972) following her migration to “our” world to replace Wonder Woman in the Justice League of America.

After years languishing in a hard-to-find or afford Archive edition, these treasures have thankfully migrated to the paperback and digital forms found here. I trust you are suitably grateful and will purchase and peruse accordingly…

In the heady, desperate days of post-war uncertainty, continuity was meagre and nobody cared much about origins. All that mattered was pace, plot, action and spectacle. As we’ll see, even when the Black Bird got her own strip, where she came from was never as important as who she faced…

Flash Comics #86 was just another superhero anthology publication, suffering a slow sales decline wherein perennial B-feature Johnny Thunder had long since passed his sell-by date. Although a member of the Justice Society of America, Johnny was an old-fashioned comedy idiot; a genuine simpleton who just happened to control a genie-like Thunderbolt.

His affable, good-hearted bumbling had carried him through the war, but changing fashions had no room for a hapless (adult) hero anymore. When he encountered a seductively masked female Robin Hood who stole from crooks, the writing was on the wall. In this introductory yarn, ‘The Black Canary’ tricks him and T-Bolt into acquiring an invitation to a crime-lord’s party, lifts the ill-gotten loot and leaves Johnny to mop up the hoods. It was lust at first sight…

Nothing much was expected from these complete-in-one-episode filler strips. Hawkman and The Flash still hogged all the covers and glory, and although young artists Infantino & Joe Giella gave it their all as they learned their craft on the job, writer/editor Kanigher was often clearly making it up as he went along…

The next Johnny Thunder instalment in #87 featured ‘The Black Canary Returns’ with the Blonde Bombshell again making the big goof her patsy by leaving a perilous package in his inept hands. When mobsters retrieve the purloined parcel and secret documents it contains, Johnny follows and, more by luck than design, rescues the Canary from a deadly trap.

She returned in #88 – sans domino-mask – using trained (black) canaries to deliver messages as again landing in over her head. Once more forced to use the big sap and his magic pal to extricate herself, she nevertheless retrieves ‘The Map that Wasn’t There’ from a pack of human jackals.

Flash Comics #89 held the last Johnny Thunder solo tale – so it’s not included here – but she returned in full force for #90 as Johnny Thunder and the Black Canary officially team up to thwart a photographic frame-up and blackmail plot in ‘Triple Exposure!’

The partnership evolves in #91 as gangsters use rockets and ‘The Tumbling Trees!’ in their efforts to trap the svelte nemesis of evil – and just to be clear: that’s her, not Johnny…

The strip became Black Canary with the next issue. She even got to appear on the Lee Elias cover with Flash and Hawkman. Johnny simply vanished without trace or mention and his name was peremptorily applied elsewhere to a new cowboy hero as the rise of traditional genre material such as westerns relentlessly rolled on…

In ‘The Huntress of the Highway!’ however, feisty florist Dinah Drake is being pestered by arrogant, obnoxious but so-very-manly private eye Larry Lance, only to realise the wreath she’s working on is for him. Doffing her dowdy duds to investigate, she is just in time to save him from a wily gang of truck hijackers.

And that’s all the set-up we got. The new status quo was established and a pattern for fast-paced but inconsequential rollercoaster action romps took off…

To celebrate her arrival, the Canary also appeared in catch-all anthology Comics Cavalcade – specifically #25 (February/March 1948) where she flamboyantly finishes a ‘Tune of Terror!’ inflicted on a rural hick trying to claim an inheritance, but encountering nothing but music-themed menace…

A word of warning: Kanigher was a superbly gifted and wildly imaginative writer, but he never let sense or logic come between him and a memorable visual. The manic Deus ex Machina moment where a carpet of black canaries snatches the eponymous avenger and victim out of a death-plunge is, indeed, utter idiocy, but in those days, anything went…

Back in a more rational milieu and mood for Flash Comics #93, the ‘Mystery of the Crimson Crystal!’ sees the Canary tracking down a conman who bamboozled gullible women into parting with their fortunes for spurious immortality. On the home front, the utterly oblivious Larry has pressured shy Dinah into letting him use her shop as his detective office. Of course, the oaf has no idea his mousy landlady is the lethal object of his crime-busting desires…

The rather pedestrian ‘Corsage of Death!’ in #94 sees them save a scientist’s ultimate weapon from canny crooks, whilst ‘An Orchid for the Deceased!’ finds her framed for murder in an extremely classy Noir murder mystery before #96 combines equestrian robbery with aerial combat as gem thieves risk innocent lives to solve ‘The Riddle of the Topaz Brooch!’

Finally finding a formula that worked, Kanigher had Larry and the Canary investigate textile thieving thugs involved in ‘The Mystery of the Stolen Cloth!’ and murdering stamp-stealers in #98’s ‘The Byzantine Black’, as Infantino’s illustration grew ever more efficient and boldly effective.

‘Time Runs Out!’ in #99 ups the drama as ruthless radium-stealing gangsters trap the duo in a giant hourglass, before #100 again utilises baroque props and plots as they track a model-making gang of burglars and are unexpectedly caught in ‘The Circle of Terror!’

Just as the stories were building momentum and finding a unique voice, the curtains were beginning to draw closed. ‘The Day that Wouldn’t End!’ in #101 sees Canary and gumshoe uncover a sinister scheme to drive a rich man mad; Dinah’s shop becomes an unsuspected tool of crafty crooks in ‘The Riddle of the Roses!’ and ‘Mystery on Ice!’ finds the capable crime-crushers suckered by a pack of thieves determined to steal a formula vital to America’s security.

Flash Comics closed with #104, making way for new titles and less fantastic thrills. ‘Crime on Her Hands!’ ended the Canary’s crusade on a high, however, with an absorbing murder-mystery involving a college class of criminologists. She wouldn’t be seen again until the return of the Justice Society as part of the Silver Age revival of costumed mystery men, when awestruck readers learned that there were infinite Earths and untold wonders to see…

Nevertheless, the sudden cancellation meant two months’ worth of material was in various stages of preparation when the axe fell. The “All-Girl Issue” (yes, I know, but it was actually progress for the times, so please just go with it if you can) of reprint series DC Special (#3) subsequently printed one of the Canary yarns in April 1969. Bernard Sachs inked Infantino as ‘Special Delivery Death!’ finds Lance framed for murder and both Dinah and Black Canary using their particular gifts to clear him. Adventure Comics #399 (November 1970) printed the last story as ‘Television Told the Tale!’, revealing how a live broadcast tips off the Blonde Bombshell to crime in the making…

Once the Silver Age revival took hold, superheroes were everywhere and response to Earth-2 appearances prompted DC to try-out a number of impressive permutations designed to bring back the World’s first team of costumed adventurers.

Try-out comic The Brave and the Bold #61 (August-September 1965) offered a brace of truly titanic tales by Gardner Fox & Murphy Anderson, pairing the Canary with Ted Knight, the Sentinel of Super-Science called Starman. The deliriously delights began with ‘Mastermind of Menaces’, as vile techno-wizard The Mist returned, using doctored flowers to hypnotise his victims into voluntarily surrendering their wealth. When he utilised Dinah’s flower shop to source his souped-up blooms, she, husband Larry and visiting pal Ted were soon on the villain’s trail…

Mystery and intrigue gave way to all-out action in #62’s ‘The Great Superhero Hunt!’ as husband-and-wife criminals Sportsmaster and Huntress stalked superheroes for kicks and profit. By the time Feline Fury Wildcat became their first victim, Ted and Dinah were on the case and ready for anything…

These latter classic tales alone are worth the price of purchase, but this splendid tome still has the very best to come as Adventure Comics #418 & 419 provide a scintillating 2-part graphic extravaganza by Dennis O’Neil & the legendary Alex Toth.

Originally an Earth-2 crime-fighter, Dinah was transplanted to our world by the wonders of trans-dimensional vibration after husband Larry was killed (see Justice League of America #73-75 and assorted JLA compilations).

Beginning a possibly rebound romance with Green Arrow, Dinah struggled to find her feet on a strangely different yet eerily familiar world. In ‘Circle of Doom Parts 1 & 2’ she accepts a job teaching self-defence to women. The bereaved troubleshooter has no idea her pupils are hirelings of vicious criminal Catwoman and the martial arts moves she shares will lead to her death and the liberation of a deadly menace…

Augmented by detailed biographies of the many people who worked on the character, this admittedly erratic collection starts slow but builds in quality until it ranks amongst the very best examples of Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy. Why not see for yourself?

© 1947, 1948, 1949, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972, 2021 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Who is Wonder Woman?


By Allan Heinberg, Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1233-9 (HB) 978-1-4012-7233-3 (TPB)

Wonder Woman debuted in October 1941. With such a big anniversary and her second movie out at last (sort of) this year seems ideal to focus some attention on her lesser-known graphic triumphs. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

When the Amazing Amazon was relaunched in the wake of mega-crossover events Infinite Crisis and 52 with art stars Terry & Rachel Dodson illustrating the scripts of TV heavy hitter Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C. and Sex and the City among others), there was much well-deserved media attention. However, the comic was plagued by missed deadlines and most of the series’ initial momentum was lost. After the fourth issue the saga was simply abandoned unfinished. A new writer stepped in with very impressive results (although that’s a tale for another time and, a separate review) while the original creators regrouped. The initial story-arc was eventually concluded in Wonder Woman Annual volume 2, #1.

When all the dust settled, the completed adventure was collected in this impressive if slim hardback and paperback and we can finally judge the story on its actual merit – unless you only read digital editions. Still. It can’t be long now, can it?

Following the reality realignments of Infinite Crisis, there was a hiatus of a year when Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman vanished. Sort of…

This story opens with an Amazon warrior battling some of Wonder Woman’s most fantastic villains and menaces, but she’s not Princess Diana of Themyscira. Rather Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl, has taken the role – and excelled – but said oldest enemies have joined forces under the aegis of a mysterious mastermind and captured the replacement – as well as the new Wonder Girl…

Enter Sarge Steel, super spy Nemesis and the latest recruit to the Department of Metahuman Affairs, field agent Diana Prince! In case you’re a complete neophyte regarding Amazon continuity, that’s supposed to be a big, bewildering shock because Diana is secretly the original Wonder Woman herself…

What follows is an enjoyable romp with glamorous and spectacular “big visuals” art from the Dodsons, as Diana ultimately resumes her place in DC’s Trinity of megastars whilst also assuming a valid “ordinary” human life to complement the superwoman persona – although that’s a fairly relative term when said life consists of a super-spy day job.

This big, bold extravaganza repositions Wonder Woman at the heart of DC continuity and attempts to rationalise the disparate, if not clashing, elements that kept various versions of the character at the forefront of debate for decades. Most fans ask not Who is Wonder Woman but rather, Which version is Best?

Perhaps, in cases of such vigorous debate, maybe it’s safest simply to get them all…
© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.